One transplant at a time

>> Sunday, April 22, 2007

I love gardening, but my love is tested daily as I attempt to turn these lawn-filled, clay plots into flower-supporting, food-producing, horizontal compost piles. When we moved into this house, several years ago, there were four rose bushes (in sad shape), five evergreen shrubs (dying), five fruit trees (apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum, all in desperate need of pruning), a catalpa tree and a dogwood tree both in need of pruning. And all in desperate need of fertilizer. There was not one bit of mulch to be seen and the soil was hard-brick clay. Talk about your gardening challenge! The joy of having a clean slate to start with was not to be found here. I was faced with first getting what I had cleaned up and healthy before I could consider starting anything new.

I had never gardened in clay before, I had never grown roses or fruit trees either so I began reading, listening to garden talk shows on radio and television and visiting the many garden centers and nurseries surrounding me. I also visited the wonderful public gardens to see what grows here. Thankfully, the knowledge base concerning plants and landscaping has expanded greatly thanks to the internet and the ability to blog. All of the wonderful people who have given advice can only be summed up as golden. Thank-you all very much for sharing your pictures and advice. I wish I could thank each of you by name but given that I can't possibly remember all of you, I have tried to list as many as I can on my blogroll. The sum total of all of this knowledge I have gathered has given me the confidence to expand my gardening abilities and grow with my gardens. And now I want to share my mistakes and successes with all of you in hopes that some new gardener might learn and gain the confidence to start their own gardens.

While attempting to nurse everything back from the throes of death I immersed myself in the fantasy of drawing up plans. Many of you know what I mean, I was filled with the excitement of planning new and glorious flower beds and life-sustaining vegetable plots and sensuous herb gardens. Well, in the meantime, I had to learn what to do to get the clay soil into some usable state. So my hands were full and my ideas were flowing. I love learning new things!

I spent the first full year observing how everything grew here, where the sun and shade fell and taking note of different views from each window in the house. This was essential in order to determine where best to place all of the planned plants and hardscape I was planning. Many plans and bed designs have changed from the originals or should I say I have 'adjusted' them to better fit the reality of a budget and available space. To be modestly honest, my inadequacies and enthusiasm needed to be trimmed a bit.

The second year we added a deck to the back of the house and this provided at least two new corners and ideas for beds, one a shade garden, the other an herb garden.
At this time I began removing lawn to make five beds and began adding as much compost as we could afford. I also began covering the areas with small bark knowing it would help keep the soil cool in the hot summers that is part of Utah living. I was trying to get worms to come up closer to the surface so they could help loosen the soil. I couldn’t resist the urge to add some plantings so I put in a couple of Irises (which are one my favorite flowers), a Plumbago, and a clematis. All of which died by the next year. The clay was still too much for them to survive in. The lesson of patience had been taught and learned so it wasn't a total bust.

Two of the existing rose shrubs had to come out. They were not able to be saved, unfortunately, the other two are now blooming with beautiful red roses and, of course, the not so beautiful typical black-spot, powdery mildew and aphids. But these are getting less and less common because they are slowly getting under control.

The evergreens all had to come out. Neither my wife nor I cared for where they were planted nor did we care to have them in the yard, besides the fact they were mostly brown and not worth the trouble of saving. Sorry evergreen lovers, I just could not do it. Besides, removing them opened up two planned beds.

That Fall I began putting bulbs everywhere, mainly Tulips, Daffodils and Hyacinths and the following Spring they all brought much needed color to the otherwise drab landscape. The soil was beginning to loosen up but still needed more work. So, in went more compost and mulch and the worms were beginning to show up for work and have helped greatly.

One major enemy I have to deal with through all of this, and the prospects are good that I will be dealing with this for a very long time, is field bindweed. If you don’t have to fight this very prolific weed then you are indeed a lucky gardener. Not that there aren’t many other weeds to deal with, but this one has roots that can travel thirty feet! When you pull them they break off easily and come up again. If you don’t throw away what you did manage to pull up (in the trash can, not the compost pile!) they will sprout and start anew. If you till and break them each into ten separate pieces they will grow ten separate new plants. Whole articles have been written on just how to kill these things. Some articles say you will never completely get rid of it. Others offer more hope but lean more towards just surviving with it as opposed to completely eradicating it. To control it is basically a matter of timing. The only time spraying is effective is during Summer when they flower and on into the Fall as they store energy to make it through Winter. Glysophate (there are over 200 name brands that use this as their main ingredient, with the most notable being Round-Up) is probably the safest for humans. The smallest drop of it will kill any plant. So extreme caution is advised. But it breaks down within seven days of use and when it hits the soil it becomes inert. So, all in all not bad for an herbicide.

One local Master Gardener I heard of feeds the plant into plastic bottles without breaking them off and allows them to grow there. In June, as they begin flowering, he cuts the bottom of the bottle open and sprays Glysophate on them until they are completely soaked. This is the time of year they take the Glysophate down into the roots and die. They are so prolific that he will be doing this every year, but at least there is some hope of getting it under control. Of course, you can always count on neighbors who don’t garden and don’t care if it survives in their yards. This means that it will always come back.

This year, in January, I decided to buy one of those ‘complete’ gardens you see in catalogs to put in one of my full-sun beds. It is a butterfly/hummingbird garden. So when Spring came around I covered the bed with composted steer manure and more compost and an all-purpose fertilizer and then tilled it all in. When the plants arrived about a month later the plot was fairly easy to dig and so I planted all 51 plants. This planting took place just three days ago and the weather has been pretty much perfect for it. 50s to 60s daytime and down into upper 30s to lower 40s at night. Occasional rain. Mostly overcast.

I am keeping my fingers crossed and getting the irrigation system prepared because I think this Summer is going to be hotter and dryer than usual. Our snow pack in the Wasatch Mountains is below normal so water will definitely become a problem towards the end of Summer.

I love life, and gardening is such a wonderful expression of ‘love of life’. When we can spread hope in this way it shows that we are doing more than just taking up space on this planet.

So, I hope you join me in my journey deeper into gardening as I try to tame the clay and beautify our world one transplant at a time.


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